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On the Independent Line, Claire McCaskill

“Give ’em hell, Claire” may not be her official motto, but freshman Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) certainly appears to be modeling her no-nonsense, Midwestern style after her home-state hero.

“What Harry Truman wasn’t afraid to do is he wasn’t afraid to say something. He wasn’t afraid to make people mad,” McCaskill said of the late president and former Senator. “That’s what I admire most about him. If I can just continue to say something, even if people say, ‘Ew, she’s like a Cruella DeVille or really way too mean, or whatever they say … that’s okay, because the point is I really want to say something.”

And McCaskill has a lot to say. Whether it’s her staunch opposition to funding lawmakers’ pet projects through earmarks or her dogged insistence on rooting out fraud and abuse in government contracting, the freshman McCaskill is quickly making a name for herself as a sought-after swing vote in a chamber in which influence often comes only to those who wait.

“I came here with a certain impatience for change,” McCaskill explained in an interview last week. “I’m really serious about trying to move the immovable as it relates to the way we spend money and the way government is run in terms of the non-sexy stuff.”

Evenly Divided

In the scant 11 months since she took office, McCaskill already has amassed one major legislative accomplishment along with a more conservative voting record than even the Democratic base’s favorite whipping boy, Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), whose support for the Iraq War led to his primary defeat last year.

In a vote study conducted by Congressional Quarterly, McCaskill voted with her party only 80 percent of the time as of August. Lieberman’s loyalty percentage was 85 percent, and the other eight freshmen that McCaskill entered the Senate with averaged 93 percent.

“I’m not purposely trying to do that,” said McCaskill, who added, “It’s not something that I’m worried about, like, oh, I’ve got to break with the party … so that it looks like I’m independent. I really am independent.”

She also points out that her state mirrors the political divisions of the country.

“The country’s evenly divided, the Senate’s evenly divided, and guess what? Missouri is evenly divided, and so I have to be busy,” she said. Indeed, McCaskill triumphed over Republican Sen. Jim Talent last year by only about 40,000 votes.

Still, Democrats pointed out that with votes on the Iraq War and judicial nominations, among other things, McCaskill has been a team player.

“She’s there when we need her,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who helped recruit McCaskill to run for the Senate, said the 54-year-old former prosecutor and state auditor has become integral to the Democratic Conference.

“She’s always telling us what the people in central Missouri think, and it’s great to have that perspective here,” he said. “Sometimes you drift when you get to Washington too far away from the people. Claire’s always brought us right back down to earth.”

Ruffling Feathers

There’s no doubt that that McCaskill is ruffling a few feathers. Her independence comes with its dangers, she conceded — particularly when it comes to abstaining from earmarks and voting against other Senators’ projects. After all, she was one of only two Democrats to vote for a Republican-backed amendment to strike every earmark from a Labor, Health and Human Services and Education spending bill until all U.S. children have health insurance.

And despite her zeal to take down the Congressional earmark factory, McCaskill appears to choose her words carefully when talking about Senate Democratic leaders, even as she skirts on the edges of criticizing them.

After voting against a strict anti-earmark amendment early this year, McCaskill blamed herself for believing — based on a Democratic leadership briefing on the proposal — that it was weaker than what was in the bill. It was actually stronger, she later found out, and she was taking heat over it back home.

“It was a certified, absolutely freshman mistake,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t make it again. But she said that she does not blame the leadership for steering her the wrong way.

“I don’t feel duped, but I also feel empowered now to consider every issue regardless of the political party,” she said. She added, “I think what the leadership said was factually correct. It just wasn’t as comprehensive as it might have been.”

During debate on what Republicans vilified as a pork-laden water resources bill, McCaskill joined GOP firebrand Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) on the floor to decry a parliamentary ruling that effectively sanctioned the fact that earmarks in the bill had been added in conference committee. The recently enacted lobbying and ethics bill prevents such maneuvers on appropriations bills but permits them on authorization bills, the Parliamentarian ruled.

DeMint accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) of improperly influencing the Parliamentarian, but McCaskill steered clear of explicitly taking on her leader.

“This isn’t about Democrats, and this isn’t about Republicans,” she said on the floor. “This is about a bad habit. This is about getting into the habit of directing authorization or spending in a conference report instead of under the bright lights of the Senate floor, the House floor or committee work.”

DeMint, for his part, said McCaskill is “the real deal.” He added, “I just respect someone who’s willing, particularly as a freshman, to say no to her party on some big votes.”

She even joined three other Democrats in voting to strike an earmark requested by the man who helped get her elected in the first place — Schumer. However, Schumer, who also serves as the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader, said she informed him of her vote against a $1 million earmark for a museum commemorating the 1969 Woodstock musical festival “in a fair and appropriate way, and I have zero hard feelings.”

McCaskill said she thinks she gets “more of a pass from some of my colleagues because they know I’m walking the walk” on earmarks.

But even some Republicans appear to be confounded by her stance on earmarks. Though he said he works well with McCaskill on home-state issues and praised her for voting for a GOP-sponsored terrorist surveillance bill, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) expressed irritation at her opposition to earmarks.

“She sides with some very conservative Republicans who don’t believe that Members of Congress should be designating where federal funds go back to the states and localities,” Bond said. “So we have disagreements there.”

‘A Human Buzz Saw’

While other freshmen in her class have appeared to hang back in the shadows of more experienced legislators, McCaskill took to the Senate floor to argue for her Truman-esque proposal to create a bipartisan war profiteering commission in September — and she won.

Initially, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a 29-year Senate veteran and respected defense expert, pushed back hard against the commission, telling McCaskill that it would infringe on Congress’ duty to investigate contracting abuses in Iraq. But after she addressed his concerns and they both met with the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Warner told the Senate, “We ‘old bulls’ are very much impressed with our new Member and her vigor and her foresight and her determination to get things done.”

After the successful voice vote adopting the amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill, her fellow freshman and co-sponsor, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) — whom McCaskill described as “not a hugger” — shocked her with a jubilant embrace, and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told her she was “a human buzz saw.”

“She did a great job on the floor, and she had a persistence when she was addressing that issue,” Webb said. As for the impromptu hug, “I don’t know,” he said. “But that was a great moment for us.”

It was a great moment for McCaskill, too, she said. And she shows no signs of slowing down yet.

“I actually said that when I got here, I wanted to keep my head down,” McCaskill said. “Well, that plan didn’t work out so well.”